Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard
When Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, on April 5, 1974, the New England author unknowingly caused a rift in genre storytelling and filmmaking that has yet to zip back up. Since then, he’s published nearly 100 works and sold over 350 million copies, all of which have spawned countless films, miniseries, and television shows.
Some have been great, some have been awful, some shouldn’t even be allowed to use the original title. When you have an oeuvre that deep and licensing that expansive, it’s understandable why quantity would triumph over quality. Still, when filmmakers do connect with King’s work, it often conjures up something iconic and masterful.
“I love the movies, and when I go to see a movie that’s been made from one of my books, I know that it isn’t going to be exactly like my novel because a lot of other people have interpreted it,” King previously stated. “But I also know it has an idea that I’ll like because that idea occurred to me, and I spent a year, or a year and a half of my life working on it.”
That’s the allure of his many adaptations. Even at their worst, they all work off ideas that were at one time unique and exciting enough to compel him to write 400 or 1,500 pages about them. Having said that, we’re probably never going to revisit the bottom of this barrel ever again, which is why this feature should come in handy for you.
As for those Dollar Baby shorts, well, you’re on your own there.
80. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
In the history of loose Stephen King adaptations, The Lawnmower Man has got to be the loosest. Taking only the most basic element of King’s story (a man who mows lawns) and shoehorning in King tropes of creepy religious imagery and abusive fathers, The Lawnmower Man is actually based on the script Cyber God, written by director Brett Leonard and producer Gimmel Everett. A sci-fi take on Frankenstein, the film features some very cool and (at the time) state of the art special effects that takes the audience into the world of virtual reality. New Line eventually relented and removed King’s name from the film. For the purposes of this list, though, it answers the question: “When is a Stephen King adaption not a Stephen King adaptation?”
King’s Consensus: Well, the film strayed so far from the source material that King went on to sue the filmmakers to remove his name from the title. Despite two court rulings in his favor, New Line still released the home video version as Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. On King’s own site, the film remains unlisted among adaptations based on his work. In sum, he hates it.
79. Trucks TV Movie (1997)
Maximum Overdrive is an absurd, over-the-top adaptation of “Trucks”, a subdued Night Shift story that’s both ambiguous and despairing. It’s considered one of the worst Stephen King adaptations of all time, so it’s telling that the story’s other film adaptation is even lower on this list. Trucks is a TV movie from 1997 starring Timothy Busfield that’s almost more absurd than Maximum Overdrive in conception—holistic mumbo-jumbo attempts to explain away the living cars—but not nearly as violent, silly, or stupid. Really, this thing is an absolute snorefest; the best part is a tonally inconsistent sequence where some dude on the street is slowly, painstakingly killed by a tiny RC monster truck. I never thought I’d say this, but I really wish a coked-out King directed this one, too.
78. The Mist TV Series (2017)
On paper, it seemed like a good idea: King’s Skeleton Crew novella “The Mist” is a story ripe for serial television, chock full of memorable characters that must try and survive an impossible situation that is literally shrouded in mystery. It’s like The Walking Dead, what with all the dread and savage humanity, only with far more possibilities because anything can happen in the mist. Spike TV fumbled big time, though, as showrunner Christian Torpe took all the menace and characterization of Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation and funneled it through cheap CGI scares and insufferable archetypes. Now, more often than not, the worst of the King adaptations are saved by a capable cast or carried to the finish line by concept alone, but both lack so much imagination here that you find yourselves wishing for a bullet like Thomas Jane in the original. Woof.
King’s Consensus: “THE MIST TV series premieres on Spike, June 22nd. You might want to mark it on your calendar. It’s really good.” –Twitter, June 2017
77. A Good Marriage (2014)
Full Dark, No Stars, King’s 2010 short story collection, deals with themes of vengeance, and while A Good Marriage isn’t exactly one of its better stories, it still has all the trappings of a decent flick. So, when it was announced that there would be a film with Joan Allen and Stephen Lang on board, intrigue settled in. Unfortunately, this film turned out to be a by-the-numbers Lifetime special, complete with one poorly fleshed-out family, awkward sexual tension, and a great collection of coins! The direction is sophomoric, and some of the interplay between Anthony LaPaglia and Allen is downright cringeworthy. This is also Stephen King’s first screenplay in 25 years, and it shows. In the end, you’re better off divorcing yourself from A Good Marriage.
King’s Consensus: “Frankly, I thought It would make a terrific suspense movie.” –Fox News interview, September 2014
76. The Mangler (1995)
Tobe Hooper directing. Robert Englund starring. A Stephen King story. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s break it down: We have a director in Hooper well past his Texas Chainsaw prime. We get an Englund performance that is so cartoonish, it makes his take on the titular character in Freddy’s Dead seem as restrained as Gunnar Björnstrand in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. To top it off: the short story in which its based (about a haunted laundromat presser) is kinda lame! A bad supporting cast, a laughable “twist” ending, and some howlingly bad CGI and you get a mangled mess of a movie.
King’s Consensus: “Tobe Hooper, who directed it, is something of a genius…The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves that beyond doubt. But when genius goes wrong, brother, watch out. The film version of ‘The Mangler’ is energetic and colorful, but it’s also a mess with Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund stalking through it for reasons which remain unclear to me even now. … The movie’s visuals are surreal and the sets are eye-popping, but somewhere along the way (maybe in the copious amounts of steam generated by the film’s mechanical star), the story got lost.” —Stephen King Goes to the Movies, 2009
75. Dolan’s Cadillac (2009)
Christian Slater has saved many films in his life, but Dolan’s Cadillac is not one of them. Jeff Beesley’s 2009 adaptation of King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes short story is a sleazy genre affair that suffers from garish overacting and a total lack of self-awareness. Essentially, it’s a would-be hard-boiled revenge story, only its tires go flat right out of the gate without a spare in sight. Think back to the premise of James O’Barr’s The Crow, strip out the gothic overtones,replace them with some desert raunch from a flu-rattled Joe Carnahan, and, well, there you are. Had Beesley gone for a lead with a little more chutzpah than Wes Bentley, this might have fared differently, but as it is, Dolan’s Cadillac is a predictable waste of time.
74. “Chattery Teeth” from Quicksilver Highway (1997)
The King half of this made-for-TV anthology movie — the other half belongs to Clive Barker — isn’t much to write home about (and to be fair, neither is the Barker half). It’s oddly shot with performances that range from wooden to deeply silly, and frequent King interpreter Mick Garris takes every opportunity to say “THIS IS SPOOKY” that he possibly can (wait for the vulture shot — it’s not 10 minutes long, but it feels it.) Still, you can’t call a movie where a malevolent hitchhiker gets brought down by a pair of chattering toy teeth dull, so it has that going for it.
73. The Langoliers (1995)
King’s stories had found a new place to flourish in the ‘90s: television. After the success of ABC miniseries adaptations of IT and The Stand, things were looking up for TV King to wear the crown for the rest of the decade. Then The Langoliers happened. Unrecognizably directed by Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night), this adaptation from King’s Four Past Midnight has a cast that looks ready to bail ASAP. The lone exception is Bronson Pinchot, who looks thrilled to abandon his Balky persona. Bad, bad “Langoliers” special effects and one of the worst freeze-frame endings of all time contribute to this entry landing near the bottom of our list.
72. Cell (2016)
King often receives hell for his endings, but rarely does he fumble on the half-yard line. Such is the case with Cell, his 2006 zombie homage that essentially finds the author answering a call from one of his own deadly constructs about 150 pages into the story. Because what follows an incredibly strong start — one of his best, if we’re being fair to the author — is a frustrating downward spiral of logic and plotting. Naturally, that chaos extended to Tod Williams’ 2016 film adaptation as King returned to write the screenplay, rewriting the ending yet retaining all the annoying quirks that plagued the source material. What’s worse, the film reeks of VOD cheese, so much so that you start wondering if 1408 co-stars John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson might be better off answering one of the phones themselves. We all should.
71. Desperation TV Movie (2006)
With Desperation, director Mick Garris returns to the King universe once again with another stellar cast, this time made up of Ron Pearlman, Tom Skerritt, Annabeth Gish, Henry Thomas. Sadly, not one of them can save this strange story: An ancient evil, Tak, is unleashed on the small town of Desperation after miners accidentally disturb its lair in an old mine dug by Chinese immigrants 150 years prior. At times, it feels like Garris is trying to make a propaganda film about believing in God, only the message gets crushed under the weight of a story despite its two hour and 10 min runtime. Originally shot in 2004, the story was to be released as a two-part miniseries, but was burned off in 06’ in one fell swoop against American Idol. Needless to say, King was not thrilled. Maybe we can undo the wrongs of this film with an adaptation of its sister book, The Regulators? Eh, probably not.
70. “Gramma” from The Twilight Zone (1986)
Here’s one for the history books: On Valentine’s Day 1986, “Gramma” entered The Twilight Zone canon. Yes, King managed to slip into the revival of Rod Serling’s iconic television series, but so did Barret Oliver, who trades in his attic retreat, The Never-Ending Story, and “MOON CHILD!” for Castle Rock, the Necronomicon, and a Cthulhu chanting “Gramma!” Originally published in Weirdbook magazine and later recollected for Skeleton Crew, this story follows a young boy left behind to care of his dying grandma, who may or may not be a witch! Told mostly through voiceovers, something Oliver killed in The Never-Ending Story, one would think we’re in safe hands. However, director Brad Mayford rushes through a script that hemorrhages too much story in too little time. Harlan Ellison, who is responsible for Strange Wine, one of King’s favorite horror novels, does a poor job adapting this eerie tale, but one wonders what could have been with a little more time to flesh this monster out.
69. “The Moving Finger” from Monsters (1991)
The great Tom Noonan, of all people, stars in this adaptation of the memorable Nightmares & Dreamscapes short story that finds an everyday man grappling with the horrifically long finger poking out of his bathroom sink. This goofy, schlocky adaptation aired as the final episode of the early ‘90s anthology horror series Monsters and Noonan’s excessive mugging is outdone only by the short’s Looney Tunes score, which would sound a lot better underscoring the adventures of Elmer Fudd than this would-be horror tale. Sure, the tone is jaunty, but without an adequate peek into the mind of Noonan’s character it’s impossible to grasp the stakes or underlying horror of the actual situation. One watch and you’ll be happy to flush this one from your mind.
68. Children of the Corn (1984)
While Stephen King adaptations really didn’t lean into prestige territory until the ‘90s (outside of The Shining, that is, but King still hates that one), Christine, Carrie, and The Dead Zone were certainly top shelf affairs. Children Of The Corn, meanwhile, is a gleefully low-rent King adaption—from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, no less—which is fitting for a short story that premiered in Penthouse magazine. Featuring creepy kids and creepier religious imagery, Corn is an effective piece of schlock that provides a few good jump scares and a wonderfully over the top opening with the kids disposing of the adults in a variety of ways, including a deli style meat slicer.
King’s Consensus: “My feeling for most of these things is like a guy who sends his daughter off to college. You hope she’ll do well. You hope that she won’t fall in with the wrong people. You hope she won’t be raped at a fraternity party, which is really close to what happened to Children of the Corn, in a metaphoric sense.” —USA Today, May 1995
67. Graveyard Shift (1990)
1990 gave us three Stephen King adaptations, and while Misery walked away with an Oscar, only one gave us a gigantic rat. That would be Graveyard Shift, which, despite being released by Paramount, feels less like a major studio release and more like a Full Moon production. The simple tale concerns a team of workers tasked with cleaning out the basement of a textile mill, and removing the kingdom of rats that have taken over. And if an abundance of average-size rodents weren’t enough to get your skin crawling, there’s the queen, who’s not pleased with the presence of the exterminators—including Brad Dourif, whose chewing more scenery than the rats. Misery may get the accolades, but Graveyard Shift is infinitely more fun, with its combination of factory-town melodrama and quality Jawsploitation.
King’s Consensus: “I spent that day knocking out a story called ‘Graveyard Shift.’ I remember being very happy and very absorbed – having the time of my life, in fact. The story was gruesome, fast and fun. (It later became a film which was gruesome and fast, but unfortunately not much fun.)” –Introduction in a 1999 reprinting of Carrie
66. Under the Dome TV Series (2013-2015)
King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a pulpy genre affair with a capital G. It’s a ridiculous, asinine premise — the idea that a magical dome encapsulates a small Maine town — that’s about as on-the-nose as a high schooler making a metaphor about ant farms and the tiers of social class. But, King flipped the medium to his advantage, finding a nice line between humor and horror, and the lengthy book was a total page turner, thriving with addicting heroes and villains that you wanted to see win or lose. The CBS series, however, failed to capture that magic, lacking any self-awareness and doubling down on the kind of cheap drama that the network continues to sell for a dime a dozen today. To his credit, Dean Norris actually offers an OK turn as “Big Jim” Rennie, but it’s hard to thrive in a bubble of mediocrity, and that’s sadly all you’ll find under this dome.
65. Mercy (2014)
There are two reasons that Blumhouse’s Mercy, an adaptation of the short story “Gramma”, ranks higher on our list than the Twilight Zone episode also made from that story. One: The movie has Shirley Knight in it, and even when she’s just OK she’s still good. Two: It’s occasionally very pretty to look at. But, please, if you must view one of the two, make it the other one. It’s shorter. There’s not enough meat in “Gramma” to fill a feature film, making this thing an overlong, paralyzingly dull “horror” movie without so much as a single jump scare to be found. Watch if, and only if, you can’t get enough of Carl from The Walking Dead.
64. Rose Red (2002)
Rose Red is so weird. King’s spin on classic haunted house tales like The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House tells the story of a group of people with psychic powers who spend the night in a notoriously haunted mansion. It features some great talent—burgeoning stars Matt Ross, Melanie Lynskey, and Jimmi Simpson, most notably—but the narrative is a goddamn mess. It literally seems at times like there’s missing scenes or reshoots that were never quite finished; the fate of Kevin Tighe’s Victor is so vague it’ll make you think you must’ve missed something (note: you didn’t). It also features the worst King cameo of all time, where he shows up as a goofy, winking pizza man in a scene that completely shatters what little hint of horror the film had cultivated up to that point.
63. Children of the Corn (2009)
Donald P. Borchers was a producer for the original Children of the Corn and, rightfully so, didn’t think it was a successful adaptation. So he set out to write and direct something that would be more faithful to King’s short story. To his credit, he mostly succeeds in this goal. But the film still makes the same fatal flaw of showing what led the children of Gatlin to kill all of the adults before the opening credits even roll. That kind of ruins the mystery. Since we’ve already figured everything out as an audience, there’s no suspense in watching bickering couple Burt and Vicky trying to do the same thing. That only makes the film’s other flaws — awkward performances from the child actors, a gratuitous sex scene, and costumes that look lifted from a community-theatre production of Oklahoma! — even more glaring. It would be nice to see a filmmaker adapt Children of the Corn with King’s original conceit in mind: the reader discovering what happened in Gatlin at the same time as the characters.
King’s Consensus: None. Although the filmmakers sent him the script in hopes of him being involved, his lawyers sent back a letter saying he wanted nothing to do with the new adaptation.
62. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
King took a stab at directing and failed. No time for jokes here. Maximum Overdrive is a relic from a time when video stores were in vogue. Great cover: Emilio Estevez with a gun and Green Goblin semi. Lil’ Justin is in. Older Justin is not. With fresh pairs of eyes and nostalgia washed away we’re left with a movie overloaded with AC/DC, bad direction, illogical storytelling, and the longest 98 minutes of your life. King’s short story “Trucks” is a good short story that has proven to be impossible to adapt into a full-length feature. I do like the first 10 minutes, but the rest? I’m hailing the next semi, evil or not, and getting out of dodge!
King’s Consensus: “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing.” —Hollywood’s Stephen King, 2003
61. Carrie (2013)
The only good thing about Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic is that it’s directed by a woman. It’s a story about women: Carrie, Margaret, Sue, and Chris are all spirited, frustrated, and broken in their own ways, so why not see what someone as talented as Peirce could bring to the material? Unfortunately, she doesn’t bring much. The result is shiny, superficial, and boring, and the casting of Chloë Grace Moretz as the titular character counts among its most fatal of flaws. Moretz is a fine actress, but nobody would mistake her for an outcast, no matter how much you give her the She’s All That treatment. The biggest problem, however? That it uses the material as a revenge narrative. It’s as if we’re supposed to be cheering for Carrie, to celebrate and cheer for this mass slaughter. Horrifying in all the wrong ways.
King’s Consensus: “I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake, as I have about The Stand and It. Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book. Piper Laurie really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing.” –Entertainment Weekly, May 2011
60. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Two Stephen King films came out in 1992: The Lawnmower Man, which was so far removed from the source material that King had his name taken off the film, and Sleepwalkers, which King actually wrote specifically for the big screen. In hindsight, he should have taken his name off this one as well. Directed by Mick Garris, who you’ll continue to see on this list, Sleepwalkers is the story of two creatures of the night, Mary (Alice Krige) and her son, Brady (Brian Krause), who wander the world draining the life force of unsuspecting “pure” souls. It’s an interesting premise that is destroyed by bad special effects and incredibly campy performances, among them is Brian Krause’s portrayal as main villain Brady, who has the horrible fate of delivering the “COP-KABOB” line. Sorry Stephen, leave the horror comedy to Sam Raimi whose Army of Darkness came out that same year. Maybe Ash can make this disappear with the Book of the Dead: “Klaatu-Barada . . . COP-KABOB!”
59. Secret Window (2004)
What makes Secret Window so deeply bad is that, in other circumstances, it might have been OK. Writer David Koepp, also the director, was fresh off writing both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and David Fincher’s Panic Room. John Turturro is perfectly cast. The source material, the novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden”, is ripe for a terrific adaptation. But Secret Window is the film that made me realize that Johnny Depp had well and truly given over to total, full-throated jackassery. His towering insincerity, studied affectations, and tendency to vacillate wildly between scenery-chewing and hitting the snooze button all make this thing a complete and total waste of time. I have gone well over my word limit and I still have more to say about fucking Secret Window. If you need me, I’ll be in the corner, crying about the future of the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
58. The Dark Tower (2017)
After toiling away in development hell for years, The Dark Tower finally hit the silver screen … with a thud. What should have been an exciting beginning to an extraordinary franchise instead became an orthodox YA adaptation in the vein of The Maze Runner and Divergent. Director Nikolaj Arcel and Hollywood Hack Akiva Goldsman took King’s magnum opus and distilled it down to a ramshackle 90-minute gasp that was as forgettable as it was maddening.
Look, it was never going to be easy to adapt The Dark Tower series, especially outside of the television medium, but most fans would agree that better minds might have prevailed. Sadly, the only ones who truly remembered the faces of their fathers on this go-around were Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, two actors that seemingly appeared straight out of another movie. Hopefully, they’ll find the right one in the near future, but let’s not palaver over that fool’s dream for too long. Oy.
King’s Consensus: “It’s true THE DARK TOWER movie runs a clean 95 minutes. Like the first book in the series (224 pages), it’s all killer and no filler.” –Twitter, July 2017
57. No Smoking (2007)
Stephen King is a worldwide phenomenon, but there’s only been one Bollywood adaptation of his work. No Smoking is a 2007 take on King’s short story Quitters, Inc. (previously adapted in 1984 for the film Cat’s Eye) from director Anurag Kashyap. The storyline remains basically the same with, featuring John Abraham as K, a narcissistic businessman looking to kick that nasty habit by less than conventional methods. No Smoking shines with a pitch black sense of humour and a stylish visual palate in tune with the works of David Fincher.
56. Big Driver (2014)
Lifetime’s Big Driver is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the Full Dark, No Stars revenge tale, which tells the story of a mystery novelist who seeks vengeance on the monstrous dude who raped her and left her for dead in a drainage pipe. Still, for all its simplicity, it features a lot of curious choices. There’s the talking GPS, a bartender distractingly played by Joan Jett, and Olympia Dukakis’ folksy, imaginary lady detective. Together, they all forge a light-hearted, playful air that might suit Lifetime, but not the actual material. In the end, the conflicting tones result in a confused, uncomfortable watch. You’d expect better from Richard Christian Matheson, the son of acclaimed novelist Richard Matheson, who adapted the thing.
55. Bag of Bones TV Miniseries (2011)
They say “write what you know,” and while Stephen King has likely not encountered aliens, killer trucks, or “meteor shit,” he certainly knows about the writer’s mind. Bag Of Bones features another author—Mike Noonan—coming to grips with the death of his wife, an impending deadline for his latest novel, and all sorts of supernatural shenanigans. The A&E miniseries adaptation features some terrific performances—particularly Pierce Brosnan as Noonan—and is directed by Mick Garris. Garris has helmed more Stephen King adaptations than any other director, and with that comes a certain class and care for the material.
54. The Tommyknockers TV Miniseries (1993)
1993 was not a great year for King adaptations (see: Needful Things, located a few clicks higher on this list). But while that one had at least a few things going for it, the best that can be said of The Tommyknockers is that it’s not worse than the book. It’s not really better, either, but we’ll take what we can get. There are a few upsides —Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger commit absolutely to the insanity, and when you look at the story as one of addiction, some of the shading in Helgenberger’s work in particular takes on additional depth. But this is a bloated, often silly novel, and while its adaptation takes great liberties with the source material, it can’t leave it behind. And that glowing green stuff is pure ‘90s sci-fi nonsense.
King’s Consensus: This isn’t about the adaptation, but it all applies. “I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I’ve thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, ‘There’s really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides[.]'”
53. “Chinga” from The X-Files (1998)
On paper, Stephen King writing an episode of The X-Files seems like the perfect fit. But “Chinga” falls victim to contrasting sensibilities. Although the series and King’s novels are both preoccupied with strongly developed characters coping with the supernatural, there are tonal differences that neither King nor creator/executive producer Chris Carter thought of when they began collaborating. Where The X-Files tends to be clinical and steely in its horror and characterizations, King’s work has always had a folksier bent. The mismatch was apparently so jarring that, when it came to Moulder and Scully’s scenes, Carter had to make significant rewrites that kept the central duo apart for the entire episode.
What remains of “Chinga” still plays like a C-grade King story, even with Carter’s revisions. While vacationing in Maine (of all places!) Scully has to crack a mystery that involves a possessed doll who — among other things — commits murder and causes people to try and claw their eyes out in its presence. Despite some unnerving moments of gore and creepy-doll moments straight from the Richard Matheson playbook (if you haven’t read “Prey” or seen Trilogy of Terror, you should), “Chinga” simply doesn’t feel very much like The X-Files. The plot is too hokey, the structure glaringly calls back to the series’ early monster-of-the-week days, and, without Moulder and Scully in the same place, there’s little to anchor the episode to the greater world of the show.
52. Nightmares and Dreamscapes TV Miniseries (2006)
There’s nothing worse than mid-aughts cable dramas; they’re all so sterile, so flat, so insipid. TNT’s 2006 eight-part miniseries Nightmares and Dreamscapes falls into this dreaded wasteland, turning King’s handful of short stories into 48-minute parables that are either too lifeless or too maudlin. With the exception of Brian Henson’s wildly imaginative adaptation of “Battleground”, which features a dazzling physical performance by William Hurt, the remaining seven episodes amount to silvery fluff that capitalizes on drugstore Halloween costumes and bored talent like Tom Berenger or Ron Livingston. Some happen to rise above their own respective nightmares — William H. Macy’s double-duty turn in “Umney’s Last Case” is worth a look — but most get lost in these boring, half-assed dreamscapes that wouldn’t scare a Sunday school teacher.
51. Salem’s Lot TV Miniseries (2004)
My memory could be failing me, but when the second miniseries adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot came out in 2004, I remember it being marketed as more comprehensive, more frightening, more faithful to the original novel.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
While slightly more violent than Tobe Hooper’s far-superior 1979 adaptation, it takes the same type of shortcuts, but with none of the rewards. Take the composite characters, for instance. Here, it’s Dr. Jimmy Cody and Sandy MacDougall having an affair, rather than Corey Parker and Bonnie Sawyer. That means one of the main vampire hunters is suddenly saddled with an arc that was little more than a subplot in the original novel. And that means a lot of the meatier plot elements get short-changed. There are other confusing choices as well, such as Father Callahan becoming Kurt Barlow’s servant, even though the fifth Dark Tower book had just been released and made him a hero in that series. The 2004 adaptation of Salem’s Lot isn’t exactly horrible as much as it is misguided and confusing.
50. ”Sorry, Right Number” from Tales From The Darkside (1987)
Oh, I wish this one were better. The teleplay, written by King himself, is pretty good, if a bit clumsy in places. No clumsiness can mask the fact that this is one of the rare, often wonderful stories from the corner of King’s mind that knows that some of life’s truest, most unshakeable horrors are grief, loss, and remorse. (For an even better example, see Night Shift’s “The Last Rung On The Ladder”, a Losers’ Club podcast favorite.) On paper, solid. But lazy direction and some impressively forgettable performances make this one a pass.
49. The Shining TV Miniseries (1997)
For all of King’s grievances about the liberties that Stanley Kubrick took with The Shining, the core of his issues will always be that Jack Torrance, perhaps more than any of his other protagonists, is a proxy for the savagery that once lived in King’s own heart, in all his empathy and tragedy. But although the 1997 ABC miniseries is more slavishly faithful to the source text, right down to Chekov’s neglected boiler, it simply doesn’t manage the same excruciating tension as the classic film adaptation. Steven Weber is far more adept at the Torrance in recovery than the one trawling the halls later on, and ironically, Mick Garris’ miniseries merely offers further proof that The Shining is a lot scarier when you take most of the human element out of the equation.
48. Carrie TV Miniseries (2002)
Bryan Fuller’s script for 2002’s Carrie is actually quite faithful to King’s novel. The only problem? We already got a faithful adaptation in 1976, one that hit theaters with a distinct and complete vision from Brian De Palma, no less. The quality of his past six films aside, he’s still one of the few directors who actually earns the overused title of “auteur.” The 2002 version of Carrie isn’t directed by DePalma, but TV veteran David Carson. Though competent, he doesn’t exactly bring his own flair to the material, which makes his Carrie feel somewhat pointless. The end result is fine — fine performances, fine special effects, fine directing — but also feels like a WB soap opera.
To make matters worse, the sole major alteration to the novel is completely out of line with its thesis of unstoppable teenage cruelty. Instead of dying at her mother’s hands like on the page, Carrie White (a pitch-perfect Angela Bettis) actually fakes her own death with the help of Sue Snell (Kandyse McClure). The TV movie ends with the pair hightailing it Florida, presumably to have new telepathic adventures. Or something. The finale revealed that, while billed as a movie, 2002’s Carrie was actually a backdoor pilot for a TV series that never get made, thus spoiling the intentions of the entire project. Some novels call for a redemptive arc. Carrie is not one of them.
47. In the Tall Grass (2019)
As a feature, In the Tall Grass was always going to need a larger narrative than what King and Joe Hill gave readers back in 2012. To his credit, director Vincenzo Natali nails the essence of King and Joe Hill’s novella throughout the first act by including its most minute details—Becky sees a plane passing overhead while lost in an endless sea of vegetation; her and Cal recite dirty limericks to comfort and keep track of one another when they get separated, building a creepy rural environment that’s often cast in broad daylight (a strategy in horror seldom-employed). But the film’s second act frustratingly retreads the same beats and jump-scares over and over again, rather than truly expanding or jumping into new territory. The strong atmospherics and performances aren’t quite enough to keep In the Tall Grass from feeling like, well, wandering through a bunch of tall grass.
King’s Consensus: “Check it out, but also watch it with a friend. Or a fiend.” —Twitter, October 2019
46. “Gray Matter” from Shudder’s Creepshow (2019)
Directed by Creepshow showrunner and effects guru/genre titan Greg Nicotero, “Gray Matter” is the Platonic ideal of a Creepshow story, and a really solid note on which to kick off the series. In classic King fashion, the story deftly weaves a simple setting of a rain-soaked coastal town with darker, more eldritch horrors that simultaneously dovetail into far more human foibles. Sure, there’s a big gloopy monster and Giancarlo Esposito shrieking in terror like the best scream queens, but it starts as a mournful tale of a man who drowns his grief in alcohol. Stuffing the cast with stalwart vets like Tobin Bell, Esposito, and Adrienne Barbeau certainly doesn’t hurt, either. By the closing minutes of this one, you’ll be suitably spooked.
King’s Consensus: “The first episode of CREEPSHOW (on Shudder) is a really excellent re-boot of the movie George and I made back in the day. God bless Adrienne, and my God, so many Easter eggs!” —Twitter, September 2019
45. The Running Man (1987)
Reconfigured to fit the action machismo of star Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Running Man is the first of King’s Bachman Books to receive a screen adaptation. Arnie is wrongfully convicted of murder, ultimately forced to join a game show and avoid being slaughtered in order to win/survive. It’s a grim plot that we’re likely only a few years away from. Disposable overall, but might be worth viewing just to see Richard Dawson play up his Family Feud persona. There are also crazy cameos including Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood (as “Mic”) and Dweezil Zappa! “Now that hit the spot.”
44. Dreamcatcher (2003)
If we were to walk up to you and tell you about a film where Donnie Wahlberg plays a man with a neurological disability who’s also an alien, fated to battle a malevolent species of “butt weasels,” would you assume anything other than “you are all insane liars”? Well, that’s the general premise of Dreamcatcher, the adaptation of a novel that was somehow delivered during King’s sober period. Despite its formidable cast (Damian Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Timothy Olyphant, Thomas Jane), Lawrence Kasdan manages to make a mess of one of the author’s strangest works, a story that aims for surreal resonance and instead lands somewhere between “incoherent” and “batshit nuts.” We’re still kind of baffled that Dreamcatcher exists at all, but in a few respects, we’re kind of glad it does, as proof that not every King novel needs the big-screen treatment.
King’s Consensus: “And in my case, more of the movies than not — if we except things like Return to Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn 4, The Children of the Corn Meet the Leprechaun or whatever it is — if you do that, then most times you’re going to have something that’s interesting anyway. That doesn’t mean you’re going to have the occasional thing that’s just a train wreck like ‘Dreamcatcher,’ because that happens, right?” —Time, 2007
43. Golden Years TV Miniseries (1991)
King’s first foray into original television was this little 1991 miniseries that ran on CBS for seven installments. Fueled by the cinematic television David Lynch was pioneering over at ABC with Twin Peaks, Golden Years attempted to do something similar, or as King put it, serve as “a novel for television.” He nearly succeeded, bottling all of his own signature quirks in this confident sci-fi narrative, which follows a 70-year-old custodian who survives a laboratory explosion and finds himself aging in reverse. Keith Szarabajka, Felicity Huffman, and Ed Lauter all offer glimpses of greatness in each episode, mostly due to King’s willingness to evolve characters at his own pace. That pacing, however, winds up being a pitfall as too many scenes get lost in the smaller details, resulting in a narrative that moves at a sluggish, nearly geriatric pace. Still, it’s an intriguing watch, but mostly as a piece of television’s long evolution, though diehard King fans will undoubtedly appreciate the references to The Shop. Just don’t expect to find Charlie McGee.
King’s Consensus: “Up until Twin Peaks came on, the only sort of continuing drama that TV understood was soap opera, Dallas, Knots Landing, that sort of thing. To some degree David Lynch gave them that. But he turned the whole idea of that continuing soap opera inside out like a sock. If you think of Twin Peaks as a man, it’s a man in delirium, a man spouting stream-of-consciousness stuff. Golden Years is like Twin Peaks without the delirium.” —The New York Times, July 1991
42. “The Cat From Hell” from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
This film version of the cult 1980’s anthology series eschews any sense of low-budget fun and creepy aesthetics for over-lit set pieces, a clearly-lit Christian Slater, and young Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore. One of its three tales comes from a short story by Sai King, adapted for the movie by frequent-collaborator George A. Romero. “The Cat from Hell” earns the title by the time the segment ends. Let’s just say if you ever wanted to see a cat force its way into the mouth of the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, you’re going to enjoy it. “Cat” is easily the best segment of the bunch. The rest is really bad.
41. Riding the Bullet (2004)
Mick Garris’ low-budget adaptation of King’s 2000 online novel, Riding the Bullet, swells with emotion. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s kind of scary, it’s really heartwarming. You get the sense that this narrative means something to Garris. Set in 1969, the story follows a suicidal man encountering his own personal demons as he hitchhikes his way across Maine to see his mother in a hospital. On the road is the forever-underrated Jonathan Jackson, who adds wrinkles and creases to what’s an black and white script by Garris. Although the film often appears as if it’s been stripped straight from early ’00s television, Garris makes some bold creative liberties, flooding the scenery with meticulous coloring and rolling the action along with a handful of nifty camera tricks. Seeing how this was his fifth King adaptation, the film’s also peppered with Easter eggs.